Jonathan Taylor

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor runs for a touchdown against Nebraska in October.  

LINCOLN — There’s a chance you don’t fully appreciate running back Jonathan Taylor’s first two seasons at Wisconsin.

He carried the ball 606 times for 4,171 yards. That would place him third on Nebraska’s or USC’s career chart right now. He hasn’t missed a game and only once carried the ball fewer than 10 times in a game. That was his collegiate debut, against Utah State, when nine carries netted him 87 yards.

If you’re inclined to shake your fist at a pro league for barring guys under a certain age, the NFL and Taylor run neck-and-neck with the NBA and Zion Williamson. Taylor is NFL-ready, at least as a two-down back. But league rules keep him out until after his junior season.

Should he fare a little worse in 2019, don’t hold it against him. The Wisconsin program Taylor joined in 2017 has shed many of the elite players who had the Badgers a single touchdown drive from making the College Football Playoff.

Five were selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Five or six more could be picked in the 2019 draft. That elite offensive line? Most of it has graduated. Ditto for terrific fullback Alec Ingold. So did four of the team’s top five tacklers, including All-America linebacker T.J. Edwards.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst told reporters last week during spring practice. “A lot of young guys getting work.”

Quarterback is no exception. The noodle-armed-but-relatively-clutch passer of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Alex Hornibrook, transferred to Florida State in the offseason. Hornibrook regressed considerably as a junior — a concussion had something to do with it — and surprisingly parted ways with a program he’d led to multiple bowl wins.

One candidate to replace him is Jack Coan, who relieved Hornibrook last season and was so-so in doing it. UW also has some scrubs and true freshman early enrollee Graham Mertz, who lit up the All-American Bowl in January.

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The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend that Coan “dominated” first-team reps in a recent scrimmage. But Mertz has moxie and big-time touch on deep passes. It hasn’t escaped Chryst’s attention.

“He’s approaching it the right way. He puts the time in studying it, learning it,” Chryst said. “Going out, he’s done some good and he’s not afraid to make a mistake. If you have that approach, then you can get better.”

Still, questions abound for the Badgers where they’ve been most dominant — on the offensive line and defensive front seven. The last time that was true, 2015, Wisconsin finished 10-3 with four wins by 10 or fewer points and seemed poised for a decline in 2016.

It didn’t happen. Perhaps, after an 8-5 season in 2018, it’s now in the cards.

The Badgers were soundly beaten by Michigan, Penn State and Northwestern and then were pummeled by rival Minnesota for the first time since 2003. Wisconsin was outmuscled, beaten at its own game. The peak of its season very well may have been a 41-24 win over Nebraska. After that game, the Badgers finished 4-4. Mediocrity.

Except for Taylor. He’s extraordinary — a 5-foot-11, 219-pound back who’s slippery in the trenches and possesses breakaway speed. Taylor’s 75- and 88-yard touchdown runs against NU are part of 470 yards and five touchdowns he alone has put on the Huskers. Only Taylor’s Wisconsin predecessors, Ron Dayne and Melvin Gordon, make his achievements look normal.

Chryst could lean on him even more in 2019 after he led the nation in carries last year.

“What will his workload be? Don’t really know right now,” Chryst said. “What does it have to be for the team? That’s what’s really impressive and what you appreciate about JT: He’ll do whatever he can.”

Taylor told Wisconsin beat reporters the Badgers’ goals are basic: win the West and win back the Paul Bunyan Axe from Minnesota. The Gophers are another young team, except they ended the season on a little roll.

Wisconsin, an overwhelming favorite to win the West in 2017 and 2018 — and a trendy dark horse pick to make the playoff last season — may not be at the top of voters’ minds in 2019. The West is wide, wide open.

“We’ve got to get back to what we play: Wisconsin football,” Taylor said.

He’ll have no problem doing that. Everyone else? We’ll see.

Other Big Ten notes

» In a modified scoring system, Purdue’s defense beat its offense 53-39 in the Boilermakers’ April 6 spring game. Two of Purdue’s top three quarterbacks, including presumptive starter Elijah Sindelar, sat out because of injuries. In their absence, Jack Plummer — no relation to Jake — took most of the No. 1 snaps.

“You’ve just got to roll with what you’ve got,” Plummer told the Indianapolis Star. “In football there’s going to be injuries, you can almost guarantee. I thought we progressed a little bit. Everyone’s getting better, everyone’s getting reps.”

Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said on the Big Ten Network the offense is far from polished.

“We’ve got to get guys in better shape, where they can step on the field and understand you’ve got to come out with everything you have and try to dominate and make plays,” Brohm said. “And I didn’t see that very much today.”

Brohm said Purdue has to be “tougher and more physical.”

“We have it in us, but we’ve got to get it out of our guys,” he said.